BWW Review: THEY PROMISED HER THE MOON at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
The dream of flight is timeless, but for seven-year-old Jerri Cobb, the desire is powerful, obsessive and perhaps even attainable. Laurel Ollstein's dramatization of the true story of world record holding aviator Cobb and her female peers in the Mercury 13 astronaut training program is an illuminating, sometimes humorous and bittersweet account of the race to empower female pilots and the wall of misogyny they encounter in pre-ERA America.
Buoyed by the recognition of the 2019 Regional Tony Award and the added impetus of this being Artistic Director Robert Kelley's finale season, TheatreWorks has seriously cranked up the quality level, They Promised Her the Moon being another stellar production in this 50th season. An All-Star cast is led by Sarah Mitchell as Jerrie Cobb, who originated the role in TheatreWorks' 2018 New Work Festival. Joining her is Anthony Fusco as Dr. Randy Lovelace, another New Works alum, as the flight surgeon who created the training programs for male Mercury astronauts and developed the tests for potential female candidates. He's joined by fellow stage, film and television star Stacy Ross as the rich, assertive and legendary aviator Jackie Cochran.
Adding to the embarrassment of riches is Craig Marker in a variety of roles (pilot and businessman Jack Ford and John Glenn), Luisa Sermol reprising her role as Jerrie's religious mother, and local favorite Dan Hiatt as Jerrie's uber-supportive father Harvey. Giovanna Sardelli, who directed TheatreWorks' productions of Archduke (2019) and Finks (2018), does a master job of imagining Ollstein's script with brilliant storytelling highlighted by stellar performances and exquisite technical embellishments.
As a seven-year-old tongue-tied introvert, Jerrie is compelled by the beautiful Oklahoma nighttime sky. Her father, an ex-pilot now car salesman, encourages her wild dream of flying, but her bible quoting mother wants her in the kitchen baking pies and preparing for eventual marriage. Once her father takes her up in the air, her destiny is sealed. Mitchell's performance is rich in emotional arch as she grows from shy introvert to determined pilot to reluctant media personality.
They Promised Her the Moon celebrates the achievements of women in a field notably lacking their presence. Both the pushy Cochran and subdued Cobb became role models for decades of young girls searching for an example of what can be. The story is ripe with unfortunate misogyny at every turn; from the patriarchal Congressional hearings on what constitutes an astronaut, to Jack Ford's early support then withdrawal when his male ego is threatened, to John Glenn's tepid support of his female counterparts. Even Stacy Ross's Cochran abandons her cause when she realizes the powers to be are against female astronauts and the timing wasn't right. The Russians beat us out on that front and Sally Ride would come decades later in America.
Director Sardelli and the cast are supported by some fantastic technical accomplishments. Lighting Designer Steven B. Mannshardt and Scenic Designer Christopher Fitzer move us from the starry cornfield nights of Oklahoma into the corrugated Nasa astronaut training labs to the chambers of Congress. Jane Shaw's sound design is omnipresent; from the sounds of a summer night to the drone of airplane engines, the audience is audibly taken along on Jerrie's unique ride. Cathleen Edwards rounds out the 40's to 70's timespan with her vintage costumes.
They Promised Her the Moon is educational, historically important and hugely entertaining. Every element and detail are captured perfectly and in such a nurturing atmosphere, amazing theatre is created.
They Promised Her the Moon continues through March 29, 2020 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California. Tickets available at www.theatreworks.org or by calling (650) 463-1960.
Photos by Kevin Berne.